College-cost strategies for students, parents

If you compare the hard numbers and you aren't from a wealthy family, deciding where to launch a college career might seem a no-brainer. That would be a community college if you don't mind commuting, or a state college if you want the campus-life experience.

But, as with anything relative to education, homework is key. There are myriad financing options and strategies high school seniors and their parents should consider before plunging ahead with a flurry of applications.

"As opposed to going to a dream private school for four years, students can earn an associate's degree in two years for approximately $11,000," said Anne Moore, director of financial aid at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.

That modest figure does not include any scholarship aid, grant or other assistance a student might obtain. While it also doesn't include living expenses like room and board, the total is less than half the tuition at most four-year institutions.

BCC's annual tuition and mandatory fees of $5,760 compares to $8,975 for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, $13,415 per year for tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and $48,000 for tuition and fees at Williams College in Williamstown.

On-campus room and board and any additional fees significantly add to those totals typically ranging from about $9,000 to $15,000 per year or more.

After saving a considerable amount over two years, BCC students can then transfer to a four-year institution, Moore said, adding that the school has a reputation for sending serious, hard-working students to institutions throughout the region.

Since 2002-03, average student debt has risen about 20 percent, according to figures on the College Board website for 2012-13 figured in 2013 dollars. The national average for students with debt following graduation was $25,600 for four-year public institutions and $31,200 for four-year private institutions.

And those are the averages; many owe thousands more.

Most low- to middle-income students, who don't qualify for substantial grants based on family income or major scholarships, would do well to consider a community college, Moore said.

Williams College is near the other end of the higher education spectrum, an elite private school annually ranked at or near the top among small colleges nationally. However, according to Vice President for Public Affairs James Kolesar, students "shouldn't assume what the price will be for them."

While Williams is extremely selective, admitting only about 17 percent of those who apply, acceptance is not based on the ability to pay, Kolesar said. Most students receive cost reductions, on-campus employment or other assistance, in addition to any other grants, scholarships or loans they've obtained, he said.

The amount a student will be charged is based on family income and assets, Kolesar said, and can be estimated through the online net price calculator that every institution is required to have on the school's website.

"Some students are surprised," he said. "It is not always the private school that costs more than the public school. It depends on the circumstances."

Kolesar said Williams estimates that 95 percent of all U.S. families would be eligible for some assistance or reduction in their college bill, which, including tuition, room, board and fees, could be more than $60,000 this school year.

Kristin Griffin, a counselor in the guidance office at Pittsfield High School, said the online net cost estimators have transformed the process of applying to college in recent years. "It's right there in black and white," she said of the estimated tuition and fees, contribution required of the family, financial aid and the amount that might have to be borrowed.

"I still think there is a shock factor, when you are talking $50,000 or $60,000 a year," Griffin said, but now it is much easier for high school seniors to weigh the costs and benefits of a particular institution.

She said students also are encouraged to plug their possible loan amounts into an online repayment calculator to learn just how much they will have to pay every month. And job prospects and average earnings for a chosen career likewise can be researched.

The cost of attending MCLA is, as with BCC, below that of UMass or Williams, but unlike a community college, the four-year school offers an on-campus experience.

As the state's designated public liberal arts college since 1998, MCLA offers a liberal arts education at less cost than private schools or larger public institutions, said Executive Vice President Denise Richardello.

The college appears on "best" lists compiled for Kiplinger's magazine and other national rankings, both in terms of liberal arts education and value. Academically, Richardello said, the benefits include small classes, many internship options and a research program in which eligible students work on projects with faculty members.

While community colleges also offer value, Richardello said MCLA, with 1,600 undergraduate students (and another 4,000 graduate students), offers a campus living experience and its location in the Berkshires is an attraction that has helped lure students from more than 20 states.

"Students have a variety of decisions to make in applying," she said, "and quite often it boils down to what is the best fit for them."

Along with cost, future earnings after graduation figure prominently in deciding where to attend college. Moore said that includes seeking a college that has a reputable program in the student's desired field, which often has as much to do with future earnings at the bachelor's degree level than the profile of the institution itself.

"In certain fields, it matters where you earned a graduate degree," she said, "but I'm not sure it does at the bachelor degree level."

Richardello said a major selling point for students and families considering MCLA is that it offers "a similar experience at about a third the cost to go to the average private college" providing graduates with a solid base upon which to build a career with less need to assume debt.

"Future earnings are only one factor" in determining the value of a degree, Kolesar said. "The whole rest of your life should be deepened by obtaining a liberal arts education at a college like Williams."

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